Tag Archives: human-robot interaction

#435683 How High Fives Help Us Get in Touch With ...

The human sense of touch is so naturally ingrained in our everyday lives that we often don’t notice its presence. Even so, touch is a crucial sensing ability that helps people to understand the world and connect with others. As the market for robots grows, and as robots become more ingrained into our environments, people will expect robots to participate in a wide variety of social touch interactions. At Oregon State University’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute, I research how to equip everyday robots with better social-physical interaction skills—from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines.

Some commercial robots already possess certain physical interaction skills. For example, the videoconferencing feature of mobile telepresence robots can keep far-away family members connected with one another. These robots can also roam distant spaces and bump into people, chairs, and other remote objects. And my Roomba occasionally tickles my toes before turning to vacuum a different area of the room. As a human being, I naturally interpret this (and other Roomba behaviors) as social, even if they were not intended as such. At the same time, for both of these systems, social perceptions of the robots’ physical interaction behaviors are not well understood, and these social touch-like interactions cannot be controlled in nuanced ways.

Before joining CoRIS early this year, I was a postdoc at the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab, and prior to that, I completed my doctoral work at the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation focused on improving the general understanding of how robot control and planning strategies influence perceptions of social touch interactions. As part of that research, I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots in everyday spaces to high five as well!

I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots to high five as well!

The implications of motion and planning on the social touch experience in these interactions is also crucial—think about a disappointingly wimpy (or triumphantly amazing) high five that you’ve experienced in the past. This great or terrible high-fiving experience could be fleeting, but it could also influence who you interact with, who you’re friends with, and even how you perceive the character or personalities of those around you. This type of perception, judgement, and response could extend to personal robots, too!

An investigation like this requires a mixture of more traditional robotics research (e.g., understanding how to move and control a robot arm, developing models of the desired robot motion) along with techniques from design and psychology (e.g., performing interviews with research participants, using best practices from experimental methods in perception). Enabling robots with social touch abilities also comes with many challenges, and even skilled humans can have trouble anticipating what another person is about to do. Think about trying to make satisfying hand contact during a high five—you might know the classic adage “watch the elbow,” but if you’re like me, even this may not always work.

I conducted a research study involving eight different types of human-robot hand contact, with different combinations of the following: interactions with a facially reactive or non-reactive robot, a physically reactive or non-reactive planning strategy, and a lower or higher robot arm stiffness. My robotic system could become facially reactive by changing its facial expression in response to hand contact, or physically reactive by updating its plan of where to move next after sensing hand contact. The stiffness of the robot could be adjusted by changing a variable that controlled how quickly the robot’s motors tried to pull its arm to the desired position. I knew from previous research that fine differences in touch interactions can have a big impact on perceived robot character. For example, if a robot grips an object too tightly or for too long while handing an object to a person, it might be perceived as greedy, possessive, or perhaps even Sméagol-like. A robot that lets go too soon might appear careless or sloppy.

In the example cases of robot grip, it’s clear that understanding people’s perceptions of robot characteristics and personality can help roboticists choose the right robot design based on the proposed operating environment of the robot. I likewise wanted to learn how the facial expressions, physical reactions, and stiffness of a hand-clapping robot would influence human perceptions of robot pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and safety. Understanding this relationship can help roboticists to equip robots with personalities appropriate for the task at hand. For example, a robot assisting people in a grocery store may need to be designed with a high level of pleasantness and only moderate energy, while a maximally effective robot for comedy roast battles may need high degrees of energy and dominance above all else.

After many a late night at the GRASP Lab clapping hands with a big red robot, I was ready to conduct the study. Twenty participants visited the lab to clap hands with our Baxter Research Robot and help me begin to understand how characteristics of this humanoid robot’s social touch influenced its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety. Baxter interacted with participants using a custom 3D-printed hand that was inlaid with silicone inserts.

The study showed that a facially reactive robot seemed more pleasant and energetic. A physically reactive robot seemed less pleasant, energetic, and dominant for this particular study design and interaction. I thought contact with a stiffer robot would seem harder (and therefore more dominant and less safe), but counter to my expectations, a stiffer-armed robot seemed safer and less dominant to participants. This may be because the stiffer robot was more precise in following its pre-programmed trajectory, therefore seeming more predictable and less free-spirited.

Safety ratings of the robot were generally high, and several participants commented positively on the robot’s facial expressions. Some participants attributed inventive (and non-existent) intelligences to the robot—I used neither computer vision nor the Baxter robot’s cameras in this study, but more than one participant complimented me on how well the robot tracked their hand position. While interacting with the robot, participants displayed happy facial expressions more than any other analyzed type of expression.

Photo: Naomi Fitter

Participants were asked to clap hands with Baxter and describe how they perceived the robot in terms of its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety.

Circling back to the idea of how people might interpret even rudimentary and practical robot behaviors as social, these results show that this type of social perception isn’t just true for my lovable (but sometimes dopey) Roomba, but also for collaborative industrial robots, and generally, any robot capable of physical human-robot interaction. In designing the motion of Baxter, the adjustment of a single number in the equation that controls joint stiffness can flip the robot from seeming safe and docile to brash and commanding. These implications are sometimes predictable, but often unexpected.

The results of this particular study give us a partial guide to manipulating the emotional experience of robot users by adjusting aspects of robot control and planning, but future work is needed to fully understand the design space of social touch. Will materials play a major role? How about personalized machine learning? Do results generalize over all robot arms, or even a specialized subset like collaborative industrial robot arms? I’m planning to continue answering these questions, and when I finally solve human-robot social touch, I’ll high five all my robots to celebrate.

Naomi Fitter is an assistant professor in the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute at Oregon State University, where her Social Haptics, Assistive Robotics, and Embodiment (SHARE) research group aims to equip robots with the ability to engage and empower people in interactions from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines. She completed her doctoral work in the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group and was a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab from 2017 to 2018. Naomi’s not-so-secret pastime is performing stand-up and improv comedy. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435619 Video Friday: Watch This Robot Dog ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, CA, USA
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Team PLUTO (University of Pennsylvania, Ghost Robotics, and Exyn Technologies) put together this video giving us a robot’s-eye-view (or whatever they happen to be using for eyes) of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge tunnel circuits.


Zhifeng Huang has been improving his jet-stepping humanoid robot, which features new hardware and the ability to take larger and more complex steps.

This video reported the last progress of an ongoing project utilizing ducted-fan propulsion system to improve humanoid robot’s ability in stepping over large ditches. The landing point of the robot’s swing foot can be not only forward but also side direction. With keeping quasi-static balance, the robot was able to step over a ditch with 450mm in width (up to 97% of the robot’s leg’s length) in 3D stepping.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Zhifeng!

These underacuated hands from Matei Ciocarlie’s lab at Columbia are magically able to reconfigure themselves to grasp different object types with just one or two motors.

[ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]

This is one reason we should pursue not “autonomous cars” but “fully autonomous cars” that never require humans to take over. We can’t be trusted.

During our early days as the Google self-driving car project, we invited some employees to test our vehicles on their commutes and weekend trips. What we were testing at the time was similar to the highway driver assist features that are now available on cars today, where the car takes over the boring parts of the driving, but if something outside its ability occurs, the driver has to take over immediately.

What we saw was that our testers put too much trust in that technology. They were doing things like texting, applying makeup, and even falling asleep that made it clear they would not be ready to take over driving if the vehicle asked them to. This is why we believe that nothing short of full autonomy will do.

[ Waymo ]

Buddy is a DIY and fetchingly minimalist social robot (of sorts) that will be coming to Kickstarter this month.

We have created a new arduino kit. His name is Buddy. He is a DIY social robot to serve as a replacement for Jibo, Cozmo, or any of the other bots that are no longer available. Fully 3D printed and supported he adds much more to our series of Arduino STEM robotics kits.

Buddy is able to look around and map his surroundings and react to changes within them. He can be surprised and he will always have a unique reaction to changes. The kit can be built very easily in less than an hour. It is even robust enough to take the abuse that kids can give it in a classroom.

[ Littlebots ]

The android Mindar, based on the Buddhist deity of mercy, preaches sermons at Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, and its human colleagues predict that with artificial intelligence it could one day acquire unlimited wisdom. Developed at a cost of almost $1 million (¥106 million) in a joint project between the Zen temple and robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, the robot teaches about compassion and the dangers of desire, anger and ego.

[ Japan Times ]

I’m not sure whether it’s the sound or what, but this thing scares me for some reason.

[ BIRL ]

This gripper uses magnets as a sort of adjustable spring for dynamic stiffness control, which seems pretty clever.

[ Buffalo ]

What a package of medicine sees while being flown by drone from a hospital to a remote clinic in the Dominican Republic. The drone flew 11 km horizontally and 800 meters vertically, and I can’t even imagine what it would take to make that drive.

[ WeRobotics ]

My first ride in a fully autonomous car was at Stanford in 2009. I vividly remember getting in the back seat of a descendant of Junior, and watching the steering wheel turn by itself as the car executed a perfect parking maneuver. Ten years later, it’s still fun to watch other people have that experience.

[ Waymo ]

Flirtey, the pioneer of the commercial drone delivery industry, has unveiled the much-anticipated first video of its next-generation delivery drone, the Flirtey Eagle. The aircraft designer and manufacturer also unveiled the Flirtey Portal, a sophisticated take off and landing platform that enables scalable store-to-door operations; and an autonomous software platform that enables drones to deliver safely to homes.

[ Flirtey ]

EPFL scientists are developing new approaches for improved control of robotic hands – in particular for amputees – that combines individual finger control and automation for improved grasping and manipulation. This interdisciplinary proof-of-concept between neuroengineering and robotics was successfully tested on three amputees and seven healthy subjects.

[ EPFL ]

This video is a few years old, but we’ll take any excuse to watch the majestic sage-grouse be majestic in all their majesticness.

[ UC Davis ]

I like the idea of a game of soccer (or, football to you weirdos in the rest of the world) where the ball has a mind of its own.

[ Sphero ]

Looks like the whole delivery glider idea is really taking off! Or, you know, not taking off.

Weird that they didn’t show the landing, because it sure looked like it was going to plow into the side of the hill at full speed.

[ Yates ] via [ sUAS News ]

This video is from a 2018 paper, but it’s not like we ever get tired of seeing quadrupeds do stuff, right?

[ MIT ]

Founder and Head of Product, Ian Bernstein, and Head of Engineering, Morgan Bell, have been involved in the Misty project for years and they have learned a thing or two about building robots. Hear how and why Misty evolved into a robot development platform, learn what some of the earliest prototypes did (and why they didn’t work for what we envision), and take a deep dive into the technology decisions that form the Misty II platform.

[ Misty Robotics ]

Lex Fridman interviews Vijay Kumar on the Artifiical Intelligence Podcast.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar is from Ross Knepper at Cornell, on Formalizing Teamwork in Human-Robot Interaction.

Robots out in the world today work for people but not with people. Before robots can work closely with ordinary people as part of a human-robot team in a home or office setting, robots need the ability to acquire a new mix of functional and social skills. Working with people requires a shared understanding of the task, capabilities, intentions, and background knowledge. For robots to act jointly as part of a team with people, they must engage in collaborative planning, which involves forming a consensus through an exchange of information about goals, capabilities, and partial plans. Often, much of this information is conveyed through implicit communication. In this talk, I formalize components of teamwork involving collaboration, communication, and representation. I illustrate how these concepts interact in the application of social navigation, which I argue is a first-class example of teamwork. In this setting, participants must avoid collision by legibly conveying intended passing sides via nonverbal cues like path shape. A topological representation using the braid groups enables the robot to reason about a small enumerable set of passing outcomes. I show how implicit communication of topological group plans achieves rapid covergence to a group consensus, and how a robot in the group can deliberately influence the ultimate outcome to maximize joint performance, yielding pedestrian comfort with the robot.

[ CMU RI ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Julien Bourgeois about Claytronics, a project from Carnegie Mellon and Intel to develop “programmable matter.”

Julien started out as a computer scientist. He was always interested in robotics privately but then had the opportunity to get into micro robots when his lab was merged into the FEMTO-ST Institute. He later worked with Seth Copen Goldstein at Carnegie Mellon on the Claytronics project.

Julien shows an enlarged mock-up of the small robots that make up programmable matter, catoms, and speaks about how they are designed. Currently he is working on a unit that is one centimeter in diameter and he shows us the very small CPU that goes into that model.

[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434643 Sensors and Machine Learning Are Giving ...

According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.

This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.

Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.

Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.

Piecemeal Solutions
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?

New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.

The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.

“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”

The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.

In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.

Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.

Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.

They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.

Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.

Damage Control
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.

Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.

But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.

Image Credit: jumbojan / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#433939 The Promise—and Complications—of ...

Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”

This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.

The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.

It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.

Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.

Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.

Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.

Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.

The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.

It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.

Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.

The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.

In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.

Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.

Domestic Bliss?
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.

That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.

Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.

It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.

Image Credit: Nonchanon / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

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